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Exploring Recent OER Research and the Need to Address Experiences, Efficacy and Equity

Surveying the OER Scene

In the last couple of years, surveys and studies have uncovered key differences in what people know, believe, and actually do in relation to Open Educational Resources (OER). A number of these articles and studies use the Hewlett Foundation’s definition of OER: ”teaching, learning, and research materials that are free for people everywhere to use and repurpose.” UNESCO offers another common OER definition: “Open Educational Resources (OERs) are teaching, learning and research materials in any medium – digital or otherwise – that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license” (Wiley, 2019, para. 8). With these definitions in mind, what do the surveys tell us?

First, the Babson 2017-2018 survey of over 4,000 faculty and chairs found that, while faculty awareness of OER has grown by ten percent in the past four years, “a majority (54%) reported that they were generally unaware of OER” (Seaman & Seaman, 2019, p. 7).

Next, it’s important to most faculty that students can afford textbooks, but they a) do not feel they can make that decision themselves (e.g., lecturers or adjuncts who do not select the course textbook), b) are not incentivized to allow a shift from commercial textbooks to OER even if desired, or c) do not want to give up control over course material selection:

  • From the Ithaka S+R 2018 survey of almost 11,000 faculty we learned that roughly 70% “indicated that reducing the cost that students pay for textbooks and other course materials is highly important; this is broadly consistent across institution types and disciplines” with the exception of medical faculty (Blankenstein & Wolff-Eisenberg, 2019). Wolff-Eisenberg provided an important caveat to this belief: “even with this attitude shift, traditional scholarly incentives – tenure and promotion, contract renewals or reappointments, for instance – influence faculty respondents’ decision-making around the use of a subscription-based publication model” (Pennamon, 2019, para. 5).

  • The 2018 Inside Higher Ed survey of over 2100 faculty confirmed the same contrast–having strong beliefs that do not lead to taking action (Lederman, 2018, para. 9):Instructors and digital learning leaders alike overwhelmingly believe textbooks are too expensive and support the use of open educational resources and other low-cost alternatives. But their support only goes so far: professors generally reject the idea that saving students money justifies the loss of faculty control over course material selection or shifting to lower-quality options.

It should be noted that it’s not clear from the Ithaka S+R or Inside Higher Ed surveys how much the faculty respondents knew about OER, other than reading the definition of OER while completing those surveys. Therefore, some faculty may have answered questions about their interest in using OER without really knowing what they are.

Last, some of the Ithaka S+R statistics show differences of opinion about OER, according to faculty age and faculty rank:

  • “Younger faculty display much more enthusiasm towards OER than older faculty, and are interested in both adopting them into their teaching pedagogies and creating them.”

  • “…faculty in professor and associate professor roles are relatively less likely to be interested in creation and use [of OER]” (Blankenstein & Wolff-Eisenberg, 2019, p. 48).

On a personal note, I map to one of the two groups Ithaka S+R identified. In rank I’m considered a lecturer (aka non-tenure-track) faculty member, but I fall into the third age bracket (45-54 years old). When it comes to OER, I’ll admit that the cost of course materials was a key driver for me to create or find free learning resources for my online students, starting back in 2008. While my class is not officially recognized as Zero Textbook Cost, students in my classes pay nothing for course materials. And I know the need is real for the students at San Francisco State University, where I teach online courses. Almost four of five SF State students recently reported feeling stressed by the cost of learning materials.

OER Need to Address Experiences, Efficacy and Equity

John Hilton III synthesized four years–2015 through 2018–of OER research, looking at faculty and student perceptions of their experiences with OER, as well as the efficacy of OER. Related to the OER experience, “the majority of faculty and students who have used OER had a positive experience and would do so again” (Hilton, 2019, p. 1). Conducting a single study in a community college context, Bliss, Hilton, Wiley and Thanos (2013) researched courses taught by 27 faculty as part of Project Kaleidoscope. They concluded that “If primary instructional materials can in fact be made available to students at no or very low cost, without harming learning outcomes, there appears to be a significant opportunity for disruption and innovation in higher education” (para. 36).

Related to efficacy, “studies suggest students achieve the same or better learning outcomes when using OER while saving significant amounts of money” (p. 1). Overall, Hilton found that researchers are studying OER efficacy more often and more rigorously–earlier studies had issues with their methodology, later studies had improved–and yet “much more work remains to be done” (p. 17).

Leading discussions about OER and equity, Ursula Pike from Austin Community College shared that “equity is about more than saving money.” While cutting costs for students is important–a feeling shared by almost three-quarters of faculty (see above)–Pike (2018) raised two equity issues that OER proponents must address:

  1. if one promotes using OER to serve students and communities that are poor, then the OER quality must be the same or better than the textbooks students cannot afford (para. 4); and

  2. those who create OER must take responsibility to manage issues of image and representation bias found in commercial textbooks, so that students can see themselves represented, period, and represented accurately.

Pike’s second point echoes work I have been doing with Peralta Community College District around its Equity Rubric. 1 The Peralta team (2019) recommends that instructors 1) “Find images and media that represent the diversity of your institution” and 2) “Encourage students to analyze the accuracy or stereotypes related to how specific groups are represented in images and media related to course topics.” To support Peralta’s efforts, I created a list of image galleries to promote accurate and equitable representation, available as a free, Creative Commons document.

Calls for Future Research (and Action)

Let’s summarize some of the most salient facts from all of these studies. On the positive end of the spectrum, faculty and campus leaders agree that it’s important to lower the costs of learning materials for students, and see using OER as one pathway to do that. Further, a meta-analysis of studies about OER efficacy found that for the most part students performed as well using OER as they did using commercial or standard course materials. On the flip side, fewer than half of faculty know about OER, they want the ability to decide which course materials to use, or they do not feel incentivized to use OER. The elements comprising the negative end of the spectrum partly imply that while OER is powerful in and of itself, there may not be enough choice of OER for specific fields, and/or faculty may be reluctant to create their own OER without compensation.

Since most research studies end with calls for future research, I’ll do the same here:

  • Study the ‘R’ in OER more thoroughly: While studies have been done about OER usage and the impact of OER on student outcomes, I did not see as many studies comparing the quality of OER compared to commercial course materials. If Pike and others are right that some faculty question the quality of OER before they get to know it, then the community needs to analyze the differences and show what David Wiley claimed back in 2013 (para. 3): “quality is not necessarily a function of copyright status.”

  • Study the factors that go into successful OER initiatives: Educational technology initiatives require certain ingredients to take off at any organization. To light up the runway for campuses deciding how to support OER use and creation, ed tech and OER practitioners should identify and study the most successful OER initiatives in higher education, and then outline and disseminate things like funding levels, staffing levels, expertise required, marketing strategies, strategies to reduce time to create OER, and other factors common to those efforts.

Since I believe strongly in a cycle of first gaining awareness, then taking action, and last conducting analysis, I’ll add calls for action to follow the awareness the research generates.

  • All higher ed institutions should do more a) to educate faculty and students about OER and b) to provide support for creating OER: The Ithaka S+R study showed that while over 70% of faculty are interested in reducing students’ costs and almost 60% of faculty are interested in using OER in their teaching, under 15% feel their institution offers excellent training and support for OER use and roughly 15% feel their institution recognizes or rewards faculty for integrating OER. It should not be a surprise, then, that faculty are reluctant to go further than expressing support for lower costs to students. University of Central Florida, Penn State and others employ open education librarians or affordable content librarians (Young & Johnson, 2019, para. 8). Schools like College of the Canyons in California promote OER and ZTC to faculty–e.g., how to create ZTC with OER–and to students–e.g., OER for Administration of Justice courses.

  • Arguments to promote creating OER should go beyond cost to include improving pedagogy and increasing equity: EdSurge recently interviewed Nicole Allen from SPARC, “a global coalition committed to making Open the default for research and education” (sparcopen.org). Allen argued that “the true value of open isn’t about reducing costs, but it’s about creating the ability for people to make content better” (Young & Johnson, 2019, para. 11). As noted above, Ursula Pike includes making content more representative and equitable as a part of “better.” In my own work with faculty creating OER, they have expressed a desire to create alternatives to textbooks that do not support their course goals. For example, two language instructors feel standard textbooks use a grammar-driven approach, while they want to focus on communication–students making sense of the message rather than the rules. Creating OER is how they plan not only to make content better, but also to make better content from the start.

This post on the state of OER today scratches the surface at best. As Hilton and others have noted, OER awareness is increasing and OER research is taking off. With that in mind, the MindWires team will definitely come back to this topic next year as the landscape continues to morph. In the meantime, you can do your part by making colleagues more aware of OER, OER initiatives, and OER research; and when appropriate, take action and encourage your colleagues to do the same.

Disclosure: Kevin works as a consultant with Peralta Community College District.

1 Disclosure: Kevin works as a consultant with Peralta Community College District.